When David Correll started sowing seeds this winter, he didn’t know restaurant and wholesale accounts would cancel orders, that the farmers’ markets where he sells tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, sweet corn, asparagus and other fresh produce might not open at all.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the fifth-generation farmer and owner of Correll Farms in rural Rowan County to rethink operations.
“We were scrambling a little to find a home for everything,” he admits.
North Carolina is home to more than 46,000 farms, but the pandemic has forced farmers to adjust to disappearing restaurant and wholesale accounts, shuttered farmers’ markets or strict rules for selling to customers. The other challenge: Adjusting to a significant increase in demand for local food.
“A lot of farmers are getting new customers because of [the coronavirus pandemic],” says Debbie Roos, agriculture extension agent for the Chatham County Center of North Carolina Cooperative Extension.
The Carrboro Farmers’ Market remains open but market manager Maggie Funkhouser has made significant changes to operations: Vendors wear gloves; their tents are spaced 20 feet apart; all produce is prepackaged and customers point to their selections; and vendors are limited to one customer at a time in their tents.
Despite the stricter protocols, customers have been lining up—6 feet apart—to purchase local meat, produce and eggs.
“I asked vendors at our last market how things were going and most said their sales were up,” Funkhouser says. “Some of our vendors were selling out, especially the meat vendors because it’s gotten increasingly hard to find meat at the grocery store.”
Mills Family Farm saw sales plummet 75% when the restaurants that purchased their beef, chicken and pork from the Mooresville family farm closed their doors. But after posting on social media that they needed to sell 1,000-plus pounds of ground beef a week to recover, customers placed pre-orders and drove out to the farm store to purchase pastured meats, sometimes waiting in line for up to an hour.
“We had an overwhelming response and what we lost in sales to restaurants, we made up with sales direct to customers,” says Bradley Mills. “The community support we’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive.”
To ensure that consumers have access to nutritious foods at a time when supermarket shelves are often bare, the Carrboro Farmers’ Market introduced “triple bucks” to increase the value of federal nutrition benefits to market shoppers and encourage support for local farmers. A shopper who withdraws $20 from their electronic benefits card (the account that distributes food stamp benefits) at the market can purchase $60 in local foods from vendors.
“There were some initial fears about whether we’d be open at all,” Funkhouser adds. “For some of our vendors, this is the only market they sell at. It’s their only paycheck so it’s been a relief to them that we’re open and there’s such a big demand.”
Correll hopes that the Davidson Farmers Market and Salisbury Farmers’ Market—the two markets where he sells more than 50% of his harvest—will open this season. In the meantime, Correll set up a self-serve market on the farm and expanded the weekly produce delivery service.
“We have crops in the ground and we have to keep pushing every day not knowing whether we’ll be able to sell them,” he says. “With the grocery stores being empty, local customers have reached out. Like the rest of the ag community, we’re trying to be pretty fluid at the moment.”
Roos created a free webinar to help farmers set up online stores. Less than 18 hours after registration opened, more than 200 farmers had signed up. She added more sessions to meet the demand and registration had climbed to 600 farmers (and counting). The Triangle Online Farmer’s Market popped up on Facebook to help farmers offering home deliveries and drive-through pickups with consumers hungry for local food.
“Farmers whose mix includes [community supported agriculture] shares have found themselves oversubscribed for the first time in years,” explains Roland McReynolds, executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, a nonprofit membership organization that advocates for a strong local food system. “Even if sales are stable, labor is going up.”
Farmers are spending more time setting up online stores and managing orders, boxing CSA shares, pre-packing orders for curbside pickups and delivering produce. In short, farmers are working harder to deliver the same volume of product, according to McReynolds.
The demand for local food might be strong now but the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association wants to ensure that farmers are protected from pandemic-related fallouts. The association lobbied state leaders to ensure farmers’ markets would remain open. They’re also asking Congress to include local farms and food businesses in economic stimulus legislation.
“Right now, market farmers are having a hard time keeping up with demand…but it’s only been a few weeks [since the coronavirus triggered business closures and shelter-in-place orders in North Carolina],” Roos says. “It’s impossible to say what’s going to happen but people will still need to eat and I think it’s good that some people are more attuned to the importance of our local food system.”